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The Spirituality of Sport


Photo by: Dmitry Kalinin

On the heels of Seattle’s stunning Super Bowl victory over Denver, and in the week leading up to 18 televised nights of the Sochi Winter Games, it seems like a good time to think about one of life’s great ironies.

In some ways religion and the games we play seem like a strange pairing. But who can deny the ever-present mix of superstition and spirituality that shows up not only in the religious section of the news, but also on the global face of sport.

As a young boy, in the early days of television, I remember watching boxer’s make the sign of the cross as they came out of their corners on the Friday night fights. During those same years, I remember a quote displayed in big letters high on the gymnasium wall of the first school I attended:  “When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes- not that you won or lost— but how you played the Game.

P1050219Many years later, time hasn’t diminished my sense of the sport gods who, at the very least, seem to show up to jinx announcers who love to keep track of an athlete’s errorless play. Grown ups still huddle to pray before a game. Victors thank heaven when they win— while losers find the perceived meaning of their lives shaken and clarified by a defeat.

Yet as easy as it might be to laugh off the foolishness of religion and sport, it would probably be wise to acknowledge the possibility that God himself has an interest in the games. Maybe the games even have a place in general revelation. Isn’t it all too obvious that all of the issues of our lives, including our reluctant, mysterious reliance upon our Creator, show up in the ecstasies of our victories and the agonies of our defeats—even on the playing field?

Could that be why the Apostle Paul was not afraid to associate spirituality with first century Greek games? (1Cor 9:24-27)

Today on the threshold of the Sochi Winter Olympics, we look forward to being inspired as young men and women, from every nation of the world, come together in the closest thing to peace we know. Yes, there’s the nationalism, the pursuit of gold, the effort to be first at a competitor’s loss. But somewhere in the mix there is also a reminder that there is something about life that deserves our complete and total effort. There’s a battle to be fought. Rules to be kept. Honor to be sought. And an outcome that is both within and beyond our control.

At the very least maybe this will be a time to remember that the games are a reminder that we are all being called to give our hearts to something and Someone who may one day show us that what was most important was not whether we won or lost—but how we played the game.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJust recently I learned the source of that quote. Coach Wooden of the UCLA Bruins attributes it to a 20th century sports writer by the name of Grantland Rice— who is remembered for more than his words. According to Wikipedia, before leaving for the service in World War I, Mr. Rice entrusted his life-savings of about $75,000 to a friend. After the war, he learned that his friend had not only lost all of the money in bad investments, but that he had taken his own life in shame. Rice, reportedly felt personally responsible for putting “that much temptation” in his friend’s hands. He made monthly contributions to the man’s widow for the next 30 years.

We may never know what motivated Mr. Rice to show such honor and compassion. But his words may give us a clue… and remind us… that even the games we play can tell us a lot about life.

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63 Responses to “The Spirituality of Sport”

  1. Bill says:

    Good Morning, Mart!

    An interesting post.

    You wrote:

    “…it would probably be wise to acknowledge the possibility that God himself has an interest in the games.”

    It’s not like God was betting on the Seahawks. So I don’t think he cares who won the Super Bowl. (And I know you didn’t write that; I was just kidding.)

    However, if by that you mean you think he cares how we conduct ourselves, I would have to agree. If we, as Christians, are gracious, play fair, do our best, and be good stewards of our money, then that sort of behavior might make God happy.

    All highly competitive sports show everyone who we are as people and what we value most. So, for that reason, I think sports are a good barometer of the spiritual health of a nation.

    The story of Grantland Rice was fascinating. Never heard it before. I’ll have to do more research on the subject. Thank you for sharing it.


  • SFDBWV says:

    Didn’t watch the “Superbowl”, didn’t care, and didn’t know who won until this morning. My life is too filled with my own battles.

    Got up this morning to snow and so after getting Matt squared away I went about my normal duties of cleaning off the back walkways, plowing, collecting the weather information and feeding the critters.

    Whereas life is a battle field it is not a game. In fact the games men played before this era of sports gods, was meant to hone their war skills.

    Yes there is honor in achievements, but unless your achievements help to ease the pain of others, enhance the lives of others, provide a quality of being that leads others to imitate then your sports achievements are just bragging rights.

    The quality of being given in Grantland Rice shows me that he was a man of true honor; he served his country in war and was a friend in the truest sense. Even though I read from someone here they thought men who went to war were foolish, I have to disagree strongly and was sad to read it said here by one of us.

    I will leave the subject of sports to someone else as what I have seen it become disgusts me and in no way exhibits *honor*.